MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Americans spent Monday, January 20th reflecting on the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- one of the country's most storied civil rights leaders, and Milwaukee on Monday played host to the state's largest celebration.
The 17th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast was held in downtown Milwaukee at the Wisconsin Center on W. Wisconsin Ave. on Monday morning.
The event was hosted by the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee, and included about 600 community and state leaders celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"The program consists of the opportunity for students around the metro Milwaukee area to display their poetry and some of their educational aspirations in front of the community all while remembering Dr. King's legacy," Executive Director of Urban Campus, Shanee Jenkins said.
"The youth of Milwaukee get to express themselves -- get to express all the creativity that they have inside of them and focus that towards a topic that is dedicated towards Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," YMCA Emerging Leaders Director Joel Peterson said.
Young people had the chance to reflect on Dr. King's teachings through poetry and spoken word contests.
"My poem was about a girl version of Martin Luther King -- how he wanted girls to vote and the things that men do these days, we want girls to do too," Namira Collins said.
The annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast in Milwaukee brings together some of the YMCA's biggest donors and partners to celebrate Dr. King's work -- and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says it helps to unite the community.
"It instills in the entire city the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. and from education to violence prevention to really community building -- it shows the vision of Martin Luther King Jr.," Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.
Gov. Scott Walker was on hand for Monday morning's breakfast, and also released the following statement on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday:
"Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a brave man who had the courage to follow his convictions in the face of great adversity. Today, we celebrate a man who inspired a nation and led the charge for freedom, equality, and justice. His example continues to resonate and influence, and his legacy will not be forgotten."
At St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on N. 4th Street in Milwaukee, a group gathered for a program in honor of Dr. King, and then participated in a three block march to Dr. King's statue on Martin Luther King Drive -- where there was an open microphone event to reflect on Dr. King's work.
Vel Phillips was among those who participated in this ceremony.
"I knew Martin very well. I talked to him a lot. We were close, and so I just feel that I have to stop just once a year and pay my respects because he was quite a gentleman. God I miss him so much. I wonder every day if he'd think that we really have come a long way -- because in some areas we're going back," Phillips said.
Phillips was born in Milwaukee, and built a career of firsts as both a woman and an African-American in the Milwaukee area. She served as Wisconsin's Secretary of State and shattered barriers for women and African-Americans during a decorated career of public service.
"I'd like for everyone to stop really and think about what you are doing that would help someone else," Phillips said.
As someone who stood with Dr. King, she still sees plenty of areas where we as a society can do better -- but she says one thing's for sure:
"If Martin were here he'd be in the thick of it. He'd be doing his thing, kicking butt," Phillips said.
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele on Monday honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Monday morning's breakfast -- and was also expected to be on hand Monday afternoon for a Milwaukee County Parks MLK Celebration.
Milwaukee firefighters on Monday participated in a "Day of Service" in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- canvassing neighborhoods to distribute fire safety education materials and installing smoke detectors.
The Milwaukee Fire Department partnered with the Red Cross and Hope Worldwide for this effort.
Northwestern Mutual employees participated in a "Day of Service" Monday in honor of Dr. MLK Jr. -- volunteering at Penfield Children's Center.
The Penfield Children's Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping infants and young children with and without disabilities to reach their full potential through education, therapy services and family programs.
Northwestern Mutual volunteers took time to create art project with the children and hosted a lunch.
Northwestern Mutual had over 400 employees volunteering across the Milwaukee area on Monday -- including at the Gwen T. Jackson School, where volunteers were busy painting, cleaning and organizing.
State Senator Tammy Baldwin was expected to join City Year Milwaukee for a "Day of Service" on Monday.
Baldwin and City Year were set to participate in a project at Bay View Middle & High School Monday.
100 City Year Milwaukee staff and corps members were expected to join 350 volunteers to complete over 150 projects at the schools -- including brightening hallways with student-designed murals, college logos, familiar historical figures, inspirational quotes and poems.
"When kids see that people care about them and that they want to be a part of what's going on here at the school, the kids respond. Nobody wants to go to a school that looks bad, right? So the more beautification we have here and the more inspiration we can provide our kids, even in simple quotes in the hallway, is going to help them in the classroom," Bay View Middle & High School Principal Aaron Shapiro said.
City Year Milwaukee is a non-profit organization made up of roughly seven dozen college-aged volunteers who spend their time as teacher's aides throughout the Milwaukee Public Schools system.
AmeriCorps members, and neighborhood volunteers on Monday worked to create a "Dream Room" for young people at the Holton Youth Center in the Harambee neighborhood.
Volunteers worked to paint, install shelving, place new furniture and set up a reading area.
Students and local celebrity poets celebrated Dr. King's legacy through poetry and spoken word.